Bezos Earth Fund - Data Progress Needed to Advance Climate Smart Agriculture
The Bezos Earth Fund, in partnership with Stanford Law School, published a report on the data progress needed to advance climate-smart agriculture. The agriculture sector is a major source of greenhouse gasses that cause climate change, with over 10% of the US’s total emissions being from this sector, primarily from methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertilizer use. Climate-smart farming and ranching practices such as cover cropping, low or no tillage, nutrient management, and agroforestry can significantly reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. However, the deployment of these practices is limited by major data and analytical gaps that prevent accurate and verifiable quantification of their impact. The lack of reliable measurement and monitoring protocols and access to confirmatory data pose major systemic impediments to rewarding farmers and ranchers for deploying climate-smart practices.
What Has Been Done So Far
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) appropriated nearly $20 billion for existing agricultural programs that incentivize climate-smart practices and explicitly requires the Secretary of Agriculture to make an evidence-based determination that funded practices “directly improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses, or reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions.” Congress earmarked $300 million to “quantify” and “monitor and track” carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide sequestration and emissions reductions by “collect[ing] field-based data” and using the data to “assess the … emissions outcomes associated with [IRA-funded] activities.”
The USDA has launched a $3.1 billion “Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities” program that will fund and evaluate more than 140 climate-smart agriculture and forestry pilot projects in all 50 states. The pilot projects aim to test out innovative measurement and monitoring technologies and methodologies that can more definitively validate the environmental benefits associated with climate-smart practices, with the prospect of garnering a market premium for agricultural products produced using such practices.
The State of Current Technology
The USDA has implemented a climate-smart agriculture initiative that focuses on specific farming practices that have been proven to produce climate and other important benefits, such as cover-cropping, rotational grazing, and low- or no-tillage practices. The Bezos Earth Fund issues caution towards relying on the USDA’s current measurement and monitoring tool, COMET, as a foundational measurement and monitoring tool for claiming climate benefits, as it does not provide a sound basis for quantifying and monetizing incremental increases in carbon sequestration in soils or decreases in methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Rather, it is a process-based simulation model that yields a strong predictive estimate. PanXchange holds the view that COMET is a useful supplemental tool, particularly when issuing conservative estimates for soil organic carbon projects as well as cross-examining results from other quantification techniques. The report claims that a better alternative is to use measurement and monitoring protocols that specify sampling and analytical techniques designed to detect changes in carbon, methane, or nitrous oxide levels. Many protocols specify methods to obtain representative field-based and remote sensing data so that a baseline can be established and subsequent changes in conditions can be monitored. Of particular interest among tech-enabled carbon programs such as PanXchange is the use of highly accurate remote observation data that is calibrated with high quality empirical samples to lower the cost of developing carbon offset projects. Unlike empirical sampling or a process-based model, you don’t have to practically unearth a farm or predict the future; you can simply observe reality on the ground. Researchers and practitioners are steadfast in developing new protocols that can more accurately and/or cost-effectively track changes in carbon levels in soil and emission levels of methane and nitrous oxides.
However, there are key steps that need to be taken to accelerate the effective use of GHG measurement and monitoring protocols to fill the data and analytic gaps that are holding back the monetization of climate-smart farming and ranching practices. These steps include prioritizing attention on practices and protocols that target methane and nitrous oxide emissions, addressing systemic challenges associated with soil carbon protocols (such as land ownership changes), and establishing a mechanism that will enable the USDA and interested stakeholders to coalesce around a small number of protocols that can become accepted GHG measurement and monitoring norms.
Recommendations from Bezos Earth Fund and Stanford Law
In order to achieve this end-goal, the joint-effort report recommends launching a USDA Ag-Methane Reduction Initiative and a Nitrous Oxide Reduction Initiative that focus on validating promising new measurement and monitoring technologies and methodologies that can more definitively quantify the environmental benefits associated with climate-smart practices. Additionally, the report recommends establishing a system of regional data hubs to support data collection and sharing across public and private entities. Finally, the report recommends investing in an independent, multi-stakeholder “Agricultural Carbon Offset Quality Assurance Program” to create a consensus-based framework for ensuring the environmental integrity of agricultural carbon offsets emanating from voluntary carbon markets. The implementation of these recommendations will enable farmers and ranchers to obtain durable financial incentives that will expand the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices. In turn, it will materially reduce the US agricultural sector’s carbon footprint while generating a host of environmental and economic benefits. That said, PanXchange expects this will not be a quick, easy or inexpensive solution.